Scotland | Licencing sends Grouse industry into meltdown

After ignoring every warning they’ve ever been given that unless things change Scotland’s government was going to be forced into doing something about grouse moors, the industry is shaking its collective head in faux-shock and faux-indignation that Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment Mairi Gougeon has decided that self-regulation hasn’t worked (“self-regulation alone will not be enough to end the illegal killing of raptors“) and has stated in parliament that, “I believe that the Government needs to act…and begin developing a licensing scheme now“.

Ms Gougeon, in post since June 2018, also said that the Scottish government planned to regulate the use of medicated grit (trays of the stuff litter grouse moors), and to license muirburn, the controversial practice of burning old heather to promote younger growth for grouse to feed on.

Licencing (as we’ve previously noted) will, apparently, involve a shoot obtaining an operational licence from a regulator which would, at minimum, have conditions attached mandating the shoot follows wildlife and environmental protection codes of practice and laws. Where there is evidence suggesting that a shoot has failed to follow those conditions the licence can be withdrawn, even if the evidence pointing to criminality is less than sufficient to merit criminal proceeding.

No details of how the licencing will be implemented have been released or when in fact licencing will start (the statement talks about “beginning to develop” a system which is fairly open-ended). On top of that in her Parliamentary statement the Minister says that “We will consult on the detail of the scheme in due course…[and] we will work closely with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, Scottish Land and Estates, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation“. In other words, the government will consult with the very people who have caused the crime and the delays in the first place. Plus ca change etc…or indeed, perhaps no change for a very long time yet.

The grouse shooting industry has operated without much in the way of control (aside from, you know, the actual law, which they’ve largely ignored of course) for decades. This had led to disappearing birds of prey (many, many birds of prey – the RSPB recorded 28 incidents in Scotland in 2019 alone, including disappearances of satellite-tagged golden eagles and Hen Harriers on grouse moors, particularly in the notorious Strathbraan area of Perthshire), the slaughter of so many Mountain Hares that they’ve had to be given special protected status before they disappear entirely (see below), regular heather burning (or muirburn), destruction of supposedly protected habitats – and now licencing. Which was the recommendation of the ‘independent’ (can a panel containing representatives of the grouse shooting industry truly be described as independent?) Werritty Review into the future of grouse shooting in Scotland.

Werritty, which after a lengthy delay finally reported back to the government in December last year, recommended yet another delay – essentially saying, let’s do nothing for five years and see if the industry can clean up its act. There was never the remotest chance of the industry reining in its worst impulses, of course (they’d been getting away with ‘self-regulation’ for so long they’d begun to believe they somehow stood outside the rules that govern everyone else) as the gamekeeping killing spree that took place during lockdown went on to prove.

Which brings us to yesterday’s statement, and the extraordinary howls of outrage from the grousers. Quoted in The Guardian, ‘the shooting industry’ said that it was dismayed. It risked grouse moors closing down, with scores of job losses among gamekeepers and estate staff, and would damage other vulnerable rural businesses, including hotels, country sports shops and suppliers.”

Let’s just pick that apart that ludicrous response from ‘the industry’…

Licencing, in essence, says to grouse moor owners that if you keep within the law and you don’t kill birds of prey, you can carry on pretty much as you do now.

  • Blood tourists can still fly in to visit the moors,
  • still spend their money on the shooting estates,
  • still wave their credit cards around in the local pubs and petrol stations,
  • and still behave with their usual immoral disregard for Scotland’s wild birds as they do now.

So how on earth does a requirement to behave legally lead to claims of closures, job losses, and hotel beds going unsold?

The problem is that this is the clearest admission yet – from the industry itself, remember – that grouse shooting can’t function without criminality, which experts like Dr Mark Avery have been saying for a very, very long time. Take just one example from his must-read blog and ask yourself how he could get away with saying things like this if it wasn’t true: “Intensive grouse shooting depends on wildlife crime – protected raptors have to be killed in order for the big ‘bags’ of Red Grouse to be possible. Even if a particular grouse moor does not kill protected raptors, they will benefit if other grouse moors, near and far, do so. Intensive grouse shooting is underpinned by wildlife crime“.

Mark wrote that in August 2016 (the same year that the RSPB backed the Scottish Raptor Study Group in their petition to the Scottish Parliament calling for a state-regulated licencing system), and nothing we’ve learnt in the last four years has proved him wrong. The grouse industry absolutely depends on wildlife crime. The industry knows it, and that’s why they have fought licencing for years and are rushing to condemn licencing now.

We’ve made clear on this site where we stand ethically on licencing, and the practical problems associated with it. Our key issue is that licencing might – if properly enforced (which on past record seems unlikely) – make a difference to some of the most heavily persecuted birds of prey in the UK, but will make no difference at all to the more than half a million grouse dying for the entertainment of shooters. Or to the unknown numbers of native foxes, stoats, weasels, and corvids wiped away from the Scottish countryside like so many inconveniences in traps and snares (see – #SnareAware). Licencing, in our opinion, legitimises the massacre of wildlife, and once in place it will be a done-deal and virtually impossible to campaign effectively for the outright ban we much prefer.

However, given that we have aren’t part of the decision-making process and that the industry is so opposed to it (and that it might just lead to grouse moors closing down and ‘scores’ of gamekeepers retraining to do something that doesn’t include exterminating Scotland’s wildlife), then – while we’ll never endorse driven grouse shooting or support licencing – on a purely pragmatic level only why not give it a try.

This fetid industry should have been gone long ago. It doesn’t deserve the opportunity to survive that licencing gives it, but it’s so unlikely that shooting can stop behaving like a delinquent it will end up closing itself down within a few years anyway. We’ll just have to make sure that when the evidence mounts up the Scottish government is true to its word and doesn’t try to find endless ways to backtrack…


“Having given full consideration to the recommendations of the Grouse Moor Management Group, alongside a wealth of other evidence and research, I have concluded that greater oversight of the practices associated with grouse moor management is necessary.

“The majority of those tasked with managing land already follow best practice guidance and care deeply about the countryside and the land that they manage. I cannot, though, ignore the fact that some of the practices associated with grouse moor management, such as muirburn and the use of medicated grit, have the potential to cause serious harm to the environment, if the correct procedures are not followed. 

“Neither can I ignore the fact that, despite our many attempts to address this issue, every year birds of prey continue to be killed or disappear in suspicious circumstances on or around grouse moors.

“The changes that I have announced today strike what I believe is the right balance.  They are not designed to bring an end to grouse shooting.  Indeed those businesses which comply with the law should have no problems at all with licensing. But, crucially, where there is clear evidence that this is not happening, where agreed standards are not being adhered to or there is evidence of illegal raptor persecution, there will be a range of effective and transparent mechanisms in place to allow us to address such behaviour.”

Environment Minister Mairi Gougeon, Werritty Report Response, 26 Nov 2020

The Minister’s parliamentary statement is available on the Scottish Government website.

The full response to the independent report is also available.

The recommendations of the Grouse Moor Management Group were published in December 2019.

The Animal and Wildlife, Penalties, Protections and Powers (Scotland) Act 2020 granted full protected species status to mountain hares, with provisions meeting, and in some respects goes further than, the recommendations made by the Grouse Moor Management review. The legislation is expected to come into effect at the end of February 2021